Bioshock Infinite Preview

by on June 9, 2011

Proper journalists should never write “I” or “me”. Proper journalists are supposed to tell a story that they have observed but not influenced. And what they end up submitting to their editor should be about the subject of the story, not about themselves.

I can’t be a proper journalist.

I have just finished watching the new demonstration of Bioshock Infinite and my heart is pounding. My hands are shaking and my head fills full of air instead of brain. Life can be short of moments of genuine excitement and surprise but this, my first live trip to Bioshock’s new world, Columbia, was as thrilling an experience as I have had in a long time.

We are shown Columbia at a point one-third of the way through the game. Protagonist Brooker DeWitt and his companion Elizabeth are escaping from The Songbird, a giant, apparently mechanical, clawed bird whose singular reason for being is to keep Elizabeth imprisoned in Columbia. As we begin, DeWitt and Elizabeth are currently searching for supplies inside a shop.

What’s immediately noticeable is that this isn’t the dark, dank inside of Rapture. This is a vividly colourful, incredibly detailed interior that is lit by glowing shafts of natural sunlight. DeWitt and Elizabeth’s interactions are touchingly personal; Elizabeth, in a blue and white dress strongly reminiscent of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, dances around the store, revelling in her freedom, trying on masks, joking with Brooker and grabbing his attention with her playfulness. DeWitt, a former Pinkerton agent, is far more stoic in his responses, but their growing relationship feels genuine and it is easy to warm to them.

It is incredibly important that you do. By including Elizabeth, the isolation that was so important to the original Bioshock is lost. Infinite is much a more personal and intimate affair, whilst also being more open and spacious, a feeling confirmed the minute the demonstration ventures outside. Sunlight fills the screen and the blue sky above erases all memories of the claustrophobic atmosphere of Rapture. Columbia is a very different place. And with that comes very different challenges.

The next couple of paragraphs relate to the plot and so contain mild spoilers.

Elizabeth and DeWitt are confronted by The Songbird (a massive and predatory cross between a T-Rex, vampire, clawed eagle and angry psychopath) which forces them to move. Elizabeth is revealed to have a special power, the ability to reach into “tears” in reality, and affect the world which she inhabits. However, she can barely control it, so when trying to help an injured animal, she appears to rip a hole in space and time, revealing a movie theatre, street and cars that seem to be from modern America and are incongruous with the late 19th century aesthetic of the floating city.

This mystery goes unanswered as the demonstration moves further into Columbia, past a militia group called the Vox Populi. The interactions between the group, DeWitt and Elizabeth are incredibly natural, the militia threatening and abusing the pair with a confidence that only comes from “having the numbers”.

Spoilers over, it’s safe to read again!

It is here that you realize that despite the massive changes to the look and superficial atmosphere, this is still very much a Bioshock game. The team at Irrational Games have imbued the world with a real tension, one that comes from being followed, being watched and not being in control of your surroundings. There is definitely something going on in Columbia and, despite the warm colour palette and basking in the sunshine, this is a very threatening place to be.

My mouth was already on the floor, and the other journalists pressed onto leather sofas and surrounded by an incredibly detailed Columbia-style living room (complete with adverts for the tonic that provide DeWitt’s abilities) were stunned into a total, reverential silence. What none of us knew was that we had not yet seen the big reveal, the best part, the moment that confirms that Bioshock Infinite might not only surpass its predecessors but possibly every adventure game before it.

A fight breaks out between DeWitt and a massed group of Vox Populi militia after the player chose to break up an execution. DeWitt seamlessly mixed changeable guns and powers like telekinesis but was still overwhelmed by incoming fire. Machine gun bullets rained down from the raised platforms that acted as stations for the Skytrack transport lines that wind through the sky of Columbia. Then Elizabeth, until now passive, offered help, using her ability to access items through a tear in reality that could provide cover for DeWitt. The AI cooperation appeared seamless.

Then the fight took to the Skytrack and the scale of the battle became indescribable. Huge distances were covered, DeWitt ziplining along the Skytrack up and around buildings trying to get access to a massive blimp hanging above the city, which was raining fire on him and the woman in his care. The closest analogy for this sequence is like riding Thorpe Park’s Nemesis Inferno. DeWitti was soaring and diving around Columbia at incredible speed using the vast toolkit at his disposal (powers, guns, Elizabeth’s powers, melee attacks) against a stream of enemies. It was an astonishing sequence, more visceral and out-of-control than the pre-packed set pieces of Modern Warfare and its ilk whilst still being exciting, unique and surprising.

The demonstration ended with a return from The Songbird and an emotional and frightening sacrifice from Elizabeth, saving DeWitt from a violent end at the expense of her freedom, followed by a black screen and thunderous applause from the room. Handshakes for developers, unequivocal praise for an all too short glimpse at a real candidate, and my personal pick, for game of the show.

Bioshock Infinite is a brand-new game that offers the gamer a brand new experience. Ken Levine and his team have not been afraid to take chances, introducing new emotions and a very new world to the series but not at the cost of the core themes and emotions that belong in a Bioshock title. It was an astonishing demonstration that thrived because the of the imagination and love that has gone into the title.

I loved it. I can’t wait for it. And my heart is still pounding through my chest.